PROBING NEAR-DEATH

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Science  26 Sep 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5897, pp. 1749
DOI: 10.1126/science.321.5897.1749d
CREDIT: ADRI BERGER/GETTY IMAGES

Books have been written about “near-death” experiences—visions of tunnels and figures of light or accounts of hovering over the operating table watching doctors bang on their chests—occurring when a patient's heart and brain have stopped functioning. Now, a British physician is spearheading a large-scale project aimed at finding out what's going on.

The study of Awareness During Resuscitation, sponsored by the University of Southampton, U.K., was announced this month at a United Nations symposium on consciousness by project leader Sam Parnia, a resident at New York-Presbyterian Medical Center. Parnia has recruited 25 hospitals, mostly in the United States and the United Kingdom, to monitor as many as 1500 people during cardiac arrest who then survive to tell about it. “About 10% of such people report some kind of cognitive process” while “dead” for a few seconds to more than an hour, Parnia says.

Psychiatrist C. Bruce Greyson of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, says emergency rooms and intensive-care units will measure oxygen flow to patients' brains and will test their blood for proteins released when brain cells die. Researchers will also ascertain whether patients accurately describe things from their out-of-body experiences that they could not have seen.

What if the phenomenon proves real? “I think that shows that the current understanding of brain and mind”—that to have such experiences you need “a coherent neural network involving a good portion of the cortex”—is “inadequate,” Greyson says.

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